Park Day School Investigates Snow Pollution

This past week students from the Park Day School’s 7th grade joined Headwaters on Donner Summit for a snow science program themed around snow as a source of water. A majority of California’s drinking water comes from melted snow which also serves as a ecosystem sustaining water source during the hot and dry summer months.

Students collect samples in the field site on Donner Summit.

Headwaters staff challenged students to create their own original research projects around something that would affect the water they consume in Oakland. The students worked together in teams to create a creative array of different projects around this theme. Below are some highlights from the group work. 

A few groups of students noticed on arrival that the snow near the road was noticeably dirtier than the snow elsewhere around the field site and chose to investigate this further. They collected dozens of snow samples from near the road, in clean snow, and many areas in between. Students melted their snow samples and tested them for total dissolved solids (TDS), the concentration of ions like salts in water, as well as the clarity of the snow melt water to quantify how much dirt and organic matter was in the snow.

Students test their findings in their “laboratory” at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

This group hypothesized that they would find a linear decrease in TDS and increase in clarity as they moved away from the road. They found that areas within 8 feet of the road were significantly impacted with much higher TDS and much less clear meltwater while areas further than 8 feet showed very little effect from this human disturbance.  The group also found evidence that particulates from the road not only affected snowmelt water quality but also made the snow near the road darker and warmer causing it to melt faster. While the roads studied did not have salts applied to them, these students hypothesized that the increase in TDS came from the mechanical breakdown of asphalt and sand by car tires. However, they also found an unexpected result of this increase. In their sample sites downhill of the road, this team found evidence that pollutants from the road were entering nearby waterways. 

In their research presentation, these students discussed how the moderate decreases in water quality they observed on Donner Summit could be magnified further downstream in the reservoirs that hold much of the Bay Areas drinking water.  Their project also highlights the importance of wetlands, swales, and catchment ponds which filter sediment and clean water. 

Students share their findings through data analysis presented in this graph during their final research presentation.

This project is a great example of what makes Headwaters student programs so special. They start with students’ own observations and challenge them to explore their curiosity more deeply. Lead by their own investigations, students learn about the ecosystems they live in, how they work, and how to protect these important natural resources.

Overcoming a fear of snow through science!

This past week students from Latitude 37.8 High School in Oakland joined Headwaters on Donner Summit to investigate the Sierra snowpack. This was several students’ first time seeing snow and we were excited to give them the opportunity to learn about the source of over half the state’s drinking water. Several of these students were understandably nervous about walking around on so much snow during their 3-day trip to the snowbound Clair Tappaan Lodge. A fear of falling and getting stuck in the snow was at the forefront of some of their minds so much so that a group of students decided to make that the focus of their scientific research project with Headwaters. 

This group of students used many of the same techniques that scientists across the Sierra use to monitor the snowpack to investigate properties of snow. Through measuring density these students quantified not only how soft or firm the snow was but also the amount of water in different parts of the snowpack. The group also measured the temperature, depth, and how far their feet sunk below the snow surface. 

Through their quest to collect data for their project, the group traveled over snow further and further from the lodge, up hills, and across areas they had previously been afraid of walking on. This group found that they sunk into the snow more in areas that had softer, less dense snow that also tended to be warmer. They also found that most of the snow in the area was on average 30% water. This means that the 1 meter of snow in the group’s study area will melt down to 30cm of water, or on a larger scale, an astounding three hundred twenty-five thousand gallons of water per acre!

After their research presentation, we asked one of the students who had previously shared she was afraid of snow at the beginning of the trip how she felt about snow now. She shared that “I don’t think snow is my favorite thing in the world, but I’m not afraid of it anymore.” We are thrilled to have conquered a fear of snow through science learning!


Call for donations: winter items needed!

We always stock extra warm winter items for the students that don’t have them, and are looking for donations of jackets and gloves. Can you help us? We also need a few supplies for our winter programs. We’re looking for the following:

-snow jackets
-gloves/mittens
-snowshoes
-avalanche shovels
-snow probes

To arrange a donation, please contact Anne@headwatersscienceinstitute.org.

Snow science in our Winter Programs

We spend most of the winter in snow science programs, stoking student curiosity about snowmelt, snowpack, the temperature of snow, and more. There is so much to be studied when it comes to snow. One of the first questions we address with our students is: what is snow? Here’s a short and easy to understand informational video we use in our lessons:

Once our students understand what snow is, they can then begin to delve into the complexities of snow science. For one thing, understanding snow is critical to understanding our climate. The National Snow & Ice Data Center writes that “Although scientists have already learned much about snow properties, they continue to study snow. For instance, the layers of very old snow in places like Greenland and Antarctica can reveal valuable information about past climate conditions.”

Many of our students become curious about temperature change in snow over time. Avalanche.org is run by the American Avalanche Association, who are dedicated to studying this natural phenomenon and exploring why it occurs. They report that, “large temperature gradients usually occur when cold, clear weather causes the snow surface to become very cold, or if the snow is especially shallow—or both.” A great graphic describing temperature change and explaining its significance can be found here.

Here are some more resources we really like for our snow science programs:

-UC Berkeley Research Center’s Central Sierra Snow Lab website
A detailed article from Worldatlas explaining what causes an avalanche
-A video from UCLA investigating how snow shapes warming in the Sierra Nevada

Understanding Sierra Nevada Snowmelt

During our winter programs, hundreds of students come to Donner Summit to study the snow-covered slopes in many different ways. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help these students understand that snowpack and snowmelt not only impact us in winter, but have a much larger impact overall.

Did you know that melting Sierra snow provides between 1/3 and 1/2 of California’s water supply? We wanted to share with you some of the resources our students use to understand how snowmelt impacts us.

Article: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About California’s Sierra Snowpack

Satellite Images of Crowley Lake before and after a major snowstorm in January 2019

Here’s an excerpt from this article:

Most of California’s precipitation comes during the cold, wet season when the crops and forests don’t need as much water,” Bales explains. He notes that farmers use 80 percent of the state’s water supply. “[They] need a lot of water in the summer, when there’s very little or no precipitation.”

And that’s where the snow comes in. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.” As spring sets in, the snowpack begins to melt. Water that’s not absorbed into the ground, called“runoff,” trickles into mountain streams, which feed rivers and eventually aqueducts and reservoirs, where it can be stored for use throughout the dry season.

So timing is everything when it comes to the melting of the snowpack.

“We want the runoff to be as late as possible, as close to when we need it as possible,” Bales says.

Typically, that runoff begins in April, and in wet years, it can continue to flow through August, according to Bales. But in years with less precipitation, and therefore less accumulation of snow, the runoff can wind down as early as May. That leaves farmers with less reserves for those dry summer months.

For more, read the full text of this article from KQED Science.

Video: Sierra Nevada Snowpack & Snowmelt

Here’s a video we use to help students understand California’s water supply as it relates to snowmelt.

Bay School Winter 2020 Program Recap

This past week students from the Bay School came to the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit to create original research projects around snow science in the Sierra Mountains. This trip not only kicked off their field intensive course on California ecology but also gave the students hands-on experience studying the source of over half the state’s drinking water. In between collecting data for their research projects, students also had fun sledding and learning to cross country ski on the trails around the lodge.

“My favorite part about this trip was the group activities such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and sledding down hills. The organized group activities were really fun and nice. I also loved the freedom of choosing your own project and going on experiments walks without adults. Thank you!” – Phoebe

Here are a few highlights from the groups’ research projects:

  • Two research teams investigated amounts of particulate matter in the snow to better understand how human activity can affect snow albedo and melt rates. They found that snow with higher levels of particulate matter was warmer and denser. 
  • A group of students interested in the bright green poisonous Wolf Lichen surveyed the different types of trees in the area to find out which tree species offered the best lichen habitat. They found that Red Fir trees had the highest amounts of Wolf Lichen, likely due to it’s heavily crevassed bark. 
  • Another set of research teams focused on how the snowpack changes with altitude as snowfall in the Sierra is often dependent on elevation. They covered lots of ground to see how snow temperature and density changed with elevation around Donner Summit. They found snow at lower elevations was warmer, denser, and shallower in depth. 

Headwaters team of scientists had a great time with this group in the snow and was especially impressed by the caliber of their presentations at the end of the trip. You can check out all of the groups’ presentations here. In addition to learning about the role snow plays in the California water cycle, students also gained valuable presentation skills and got to experience first hand what field-based science involves. Based on their survey data several of these students developed a greater interest in the sciences. Between pre and post-program surveys, the percentage of students who reported being interested in a science-related career increased by 25%. 

A special thank you goes out to Tahoe Donner XC for donating rental snow shoes and the Auburn Ski Club for donating rental skis for the student to explore with during this trip.